Monday, August 5, 2013

Bibliophile: It Only Hurts When You Laugh at Carleton University

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”
Sir Francis Bacon 

This is Bibliophile.

Ever hit undo one time too many and erase an entire blog post? Well, I sure did. I had all my books selected, and then, with a few errant key strokes, lost it all. Ah, hubris. It's funny--I've officially turned 30 today, and I keep interpreting everything as this omen for how the next decade will be. Oh, the restaurant I wanted to go to is closed for renovations? Omen. The weather's nice today? Omen. Lost a Bibliophile post? Omen. It's going to be a long next thirty years if things keep appearing to be symbolic constructions referring to other entities the entire time.  Anyway, this week, Bibliophile takes a trip to Carleton University. We'll be looking at some of the new books it's accumulated in the next month, after the break.

The new titles page at Carleton is organized in terms of the last 30 days, and is divided into sections based on the subject headings of the Library of Congress. It doesn't include ebooks, which makes my task simpler. It turns out they have a lot of interesting new books, though sadly not a lot in the digital media side of things.
 Starting with Psychology:
 The best within us : positive psychology perspectives on eudaimonia /edited by Alan S. Waterman. Feb 2013.
Eudaimonia, incidentally, is apparently defined as "flourishing, realization of potentials reflecting the true self, and happiness that comes from the pursuit of virtue/excellence." It sounds like a concept that readily opens itself to accusations of moralizing, to be honest. The book argues that eudaimonism is often pitted against hedonism, but these psychologists have found that eudaimonic functioning is a good measure for  personal and communal pleasure. I can see being happy about doing well something you take pride in; unfortunately, I don't think our current socio-political system can support everyone doing that kind of work. The book includes thirteen chapters that cover related subjects such as cross-cultural perceptions of goals and meaning in adulthood;the role of true self in Eudaimonia; passion and optimal functioning; happiness as the consequence of a life well lived. The entire subject seems a little too geared toward the "self-help" genre for my tastes, though  I acknowledge that these people are working within a much more formal set of parameters, and a much more established source of authority. The book is published by The American Psychological Assocation (there's that authority thing) and runs 304 pages; it costs $43.77 for the hardcover, $41.59 for the kindle, which is an odd price disparity. H.

How to laugh your way through life : a psychoanalyst's advice /Paul Marcus.  May 2013.
This book has a somewhat different approach to positive emotion and psychology. It's more explicitly in the self-help vein, with the idea being that an appreciation for the tragicomic can help guide one through tragedy. The book cites both Mel Brooks and Ludgwig Wittgenstein in its description, which has to be a first. I can appreciate the general sentiment, though carried to extremes, it's an attitude that seems to promote a certain ironic detachment--and, again carried to extremes, it seems to be the equivalent of telling someone in pain to "laugh it off." Individual chapters have focuses including suffering, love, psychoanalysis, and death. Published  by Karnac Books, the kindle version is $12.63 and the paperback is $25.63, and runs 170 pages. H.

Mindvaults : sociocultural grounds for pretending and imagining /Radu J. Bogdan.  March 2013.
I assumed with a title like "mindvaults," we were going to get a discussion on how the mind works as a locked container. But Bogdan is actually referring to the other part of vaulting, vaulting as leaping and jumping. The book is about the way the human mind can jump to other subjects, moving through abstract, concrete, hypothetical situations in an instant, at will and involuntarily. He argues that any model of ontology--that's the science of knowing--needs to take pretending and imagining into account in terms of how they enable mindvaulting. And in particular, it's the development of these traits in a child that determines what kind of person they will be. Mindvaulting's versaility and nonmodularity resist evolutionary explanations, and must be accounted for on an ontogenetic level--that is, on the level of the individual. As you can tell from the ten dollar words, we've moved a ways away from the "laughter is the best medicine" psychology that Marcus was espousing. The book is published by MIT Press, it's 264 pages long, and it's available in hardcover only for $31.50. H.

Probably approximately correct : nature's algorithms for learning and prospering in a complex world /Leslie Valiant. June 2013.
I spent a few months once doing a research assistanceship into mathematical modeling competitions, where the contestants were challenged to create models to approximate real life situations. Well, quasi-real life. I think my favorite was one where you had to figure out optimal hunting and chasing strategies for a human/velociraptor pairing. At any rate, the chief difficulty was clearly that creating models for real life things is very difficult; there's just too many factors in reality to work them all properly into a model. In this book, Leslie Valiant (great last name--I'm so-so on the first name) argues that we construct models of how the world works all the time, but we always settle with approximately correct rather than an exact answer. Without thinking about it too much, that sounds right to me. (You see what I did there?) And starting from that premise, he looks at the computational nature of evolution and learning, nature vs. nurture, and the limits of artificial intelligence. It's pop science, but could be interesting vacation reading fodder.  208 pages, from Basic Books, $12.96 Kindle edition, $19.96 hardcover. H.

Time warped : unlocking the mysteries of time perception /Claudia Hammond. May 2013.

Everything I know about time perception comes from Bernard Stiegler's technics and time series. That is perhaps not a good thing. Hammond's book is trying to be a more accessible discussion on how humans perceive time. (Not a hard target to hit, frankly.) From the description, it's not only a book on how people perceive time but how to change that perception to your favor. So once again, we've wandered into what seems like the self-help pop side of neurology and psychology. I've always wondered who makes the choices on including books like this on a library to buy list. I'm not disparaging their values, mind you; I dare say self-help books have changed more lives than, say, the latest hard hitter on epiphenomenology. But I am idly interested by the process that goes on. And Hammond is a fully accredited professor; I guess the prejudice is on my part here. I suppose it's a way of reinforcing my own value as a graduate student. Being skeptical of books written for a mass audience allows me to justify the time I spent reading, well, Technics and Time. And now, I, the psychology book observer, have psychology-fied myself! It must be an omen. 352 pages, Harper Perennial, $9.61 for the Kindle version, $12.43 for the paperback. H.

 Archival anxiety and the vocational calling / by Richard J. Cox. March 2011.
This is apparently Cox's fifteenth book on the subject archival studies, which means he's definitely found his niche. The idea of the essays is that they're responding to anxieties about archival roles in a time of change, which I'm assuming is a vague way of saying "digital changes stuff." It starts with three essays on "archival calling," especially Cox's own calling to become an archivist. "Calling" is an interesting phrase in this context, as it usually pertains to religion; I'm reminded of the Simpsons' quotation, "Cecil no civilization in history has ever considered chief hydrological engineer a calling." (Fine, fine, the Cappadocians.) The second part of the book addresses how government secrecy can challenge the role of archival professions, if left unchecked. And the third considers the practical ethics of archiving. And finally, the fourth section of essays deal with training the next generation of archivists. I have to say, it's a bit jarring to see someone treat archival work so seriously. I'm very fond of archiving, as I think anyone with a 800+ posts blog would have to be, but it still seems like a lot of energy to put into the subject. There's some interesting theoretical and practical considerations that arise from archival work, but this particular book seems better suited to those already well immersed in the field. Litwin Books, 374 pages, $33.25 for the paperback.

Slumming : sexual and racial encounters in American nightlife, 1885-1940 /Chad Heap. May 2009.
There's a title that catches the eye. From psychology to archiving to history, Heap's book explores jazz-age America, and how the prospect of slumming was less an occasional event and more a cultural intermingling, white urbanites venturing into off-limit locales. And while there's connotations of voyeurism there, he argues that the uninhibited mingling it promoted helped recast the racial and sexual landscape of burgeoning U.S.A. urbanity. In other words, if the Mad Men folk ever want to do a prequel series, here's the first book they should check. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which looks at the spatial dynamics of slumming and the concept of commercial leisure, and the second which is more centered around the scenes in Chicago and New York. I think the chapter titles are enough to gauge if this is a thing for you: "The Search for Bohemian Thrillage"; "The Negro Vogue: Excursions into a 'Mysterious Dark World'"; and "The Pansy and Lesbian Craze in White and Black." $10.08 for the kindle edition, $19.49 for the paperback, 432 pages from the U of Chicago P.

 Jane Austen, game theorist / Michael Suk-Young Chwe. April 2013.
Sadly, Chwe is referring to game theory in the mathematical sense rather than the "let's design a videogame" sense; it's a confusion that comes up a lot in game studies. If, he argues, we define game theory as the study of how people make choices while interacting with others, then Jane Austen's books are an exploration of exactly that. Austen theorized choice and preferences, and put forth in her novels an argument that joining in strategies with a partner was the surest for of intimacy. Game theory has received a lot of success, and it's because it's one of the more versatile mathematical models, pertaining to everything from gambling odds to clothing purchases. Loosely, you could think of it as mathematizing choices. And as long as those choices can be associated with ranks and ratings, game  theory can be applied to maximize the desired outcome. I'm skeptical of applying the label of game theorist to Austen, though. Not because you can't conceive of social behavior as a subject for game theory, but because, really, there's more reason to accept Austin in this role than, say, Tolstoy or Fielding. History is full of writers that "theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking."  It's not quite anachronistic, but it's at least someone holding a hammer and trying to argue that the screw in front of them is really a nail. I'll grant that it could still be an interesting book, though--Chwe clearly knows both sides of his subject well enough, and the joining of mathematics and literature is something I'm whole-heartedly in favor of. 288 pages, Princeton UP, and it costs $19.25 for the kindle version, $27.85 for the hardcover. H.

And that's it for the NEW new books. We'll also be looking at a few I didn't get to from previous postings. From July 2nd, we have two literary pickings:

The age of miracles : a novel / Karen Thompson Walker.  1st ed.   Jan 2013.
As a general rule of thumb, anything that requires a subtitle to inform the reader that it is a novel is somewhat overly literary for my "fun" reading. But Walker's book still sounds rather interesting.The plot is that something has happened to the rotation of the earth, that the speed with which the planet moves has changed. And as a result, gravity, days and nights, birds, tides, and human behavior are strangely affected. Likewise, the life of teenager Julia is thrown into disarray and she and those closer to her have to find a new way to balance. Catastrophe as metaphor, then; like the movie Melancholia, but hopefully less like a slow motion train wreck. I've actually read a similar sounding book recently: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson (what is it three name authors?). The plot there is that the world suddenly encased in a sphere that prevents the starlight from reaching it, and slows time inside the sphere so that each 100 million years outside is a year inside. And again, it's all about how one copes with a catastrophe looming over one's head in everyday life. I have a colleague who's written on the upsurge on apocalyptic stories reflects the global economic situation and the narrowing middle class; more and more, those who are well-educated but with few options dream of scenarios where everything that currently exists can be wiped away so we have a chance of starting anew, no matter what's lost. The scary thing is, that reality may be more depressing than most of these apocalypse stories. 304 pages, Random House. $19.13 fore the hardcover, $12.29 for the paperback, and $26.48 for the audio book. H.
Alif the unseen / G. Willow Wilson. April 2013.
Wilson was the author of a short-lived Vertigo Comics series called Air. I remember being intrigued by the book's premise, but rarely wowed by the execution; the sum of all of my recollections of the books consists of the following: magic traveling, rare female protagonist (for a comic book published by DC, it's rare), country literally wiped off the face of the map. No, I don't know what any of those mean any more. This book is about is about Alif, the pseudonym for a Arab-Indian hacker who shields his clients from unwanted surveillance. It's a techno-magic sort of book, as Alif discovers the secret book of the djinn just as he's on the run from a particularly unpleasant group of people. The book's description calls it a blend of Neal Stephenson, Philip Pullman, and (of course) The Thousand and One Nights, which is a pretty decent pedrigee. If you're into a sci-fi/magic story that's pulling from more sources than the usual King Arthur + modern white guy sort of thing, this looks like a good bet. 448 pages, Grove Press. $17.61 for the hardcover, $13.45 for the paper back, and $7.32 for the audio book. That's an interesting set of pricing. H.

From July 14th:
Laura Secord : heroine of the War of 1812 / Peggy Dymond Leavey. Quest Biography series. May 2012.
1812 is one of those more embarrassing wars, because, nominally, Canada and the USA are best buds now. (Canada: Aren't we best friends? We're best friends, right? We're the bestest best friends anyone ever had! Our best bests all other bests! Yay!"USA: Did someone say something?) It's especially awkward to label people from that war heroes, because it implies that our "close friends" on the other side are villains. Secord's famous for a somewhat neutral task, walking 30 kilometers to a British outpost to warn the soldiers there of an American ambush. She also has a gourmet chocolate manufacturer named after her, though that's less traditionally heroic. The book's description alludes to controversy over her legacy. And judging by Wikipedia, I'm gathering the controversy is over whether her actions actually had an effect on the war. There's apparently reliable information that the British would have gotten word of the ambush anyway. But I'd argue that doesn't diminish what she did--as far as she knew, she was the vital difference. Quest Biography seems to be a series of similar books, devoted to various Canadian historic figures, from Marshall McLuhan to Louis Riel.$7.88 for the Kindle version, and $16.74 for paperback. 224 pages. Published by Dundurn. H.

The philosophy of free will : essential readings from the contemporary debates / edited by Paul Russell and Oisín Deery. March 2013.
 An anthology edited by U of BC folk. The topic is free will, and it's a pretty big book: 540+ pages, and over 26 essays. The collection is divided into five parts. First is "The Free Will Problem--Realy or Illusory?" and includes Daniel C. Dennett's "Please Don't Feed the Bugbears." The Second is "Naturalism Against Scepticism" and includes Peter F. Strawosn's "Freedom and Resentment." Part Three is "The Consequence Argument" and includes "A Modal Argument for Incompatibilism" by Peter Van Inwagen. Part Four is "Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities" and includes "Incompatibilism and the Avoidance of Blame" by Michael Otsuka. Part Five is "Libertarian Alternatives--Soft and Hard" and bless them for making Libertarianism sound like ice cream choices. Part Six is Compatibilism: Heirarchical Theories and Manipulation Problems, and includes Richard Double's "Puppeteers, Hypnotists, and Neurosurgeons."  Part Seven is Compatibilism: Reason-Based Alternatives, and includes Susan Wolf's "Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility." Part Eight is Autonomy and History, and includes Michael McKenna's "Responsibility & Globally Manipulated Agents." Part Nine is Skepticism, Illusionism, and Revisionism, and includes Manuel Vargas' "How to Solve the Problem of Free Will." Part 10 is Optomism, Pessimism, and Their Modes, and includes "Optimistic Skepticism about Free Will" by Derek Pereboom. (Two spellings of skeptic in one title list? Eyebrow raised.) Part 11 is The Phenomenology of Agency and Experimental Philosophy, including  Benjamin Libet's "Do We Have Free Will?".  So yeah--even if you disagree with the book, at least you'll have a lot of it. $125 for the hardcover, $34.38 for the paperback. Oxford UP. H, but not yet catalogued.

That's it for this week. See you next time, where we answer the question, so what is compatibilism anyway? (No, we'll answer that now: it's the belief that you can have free will and determinism, and both can be true at once. All right.)

Later Days.

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